Last year, just before all that football stuff kicked off in Russia, I wandered from my home in South East London to Hayes Lane, the home of Bromley Town F.C. There, after purchasing a reasonably priced pint of beer and taking my seat in a spartan stand behind a new born baby and a man still wearing his cycling helmet I watched Cascadia (a region of the Pacific Northwest) take on Western Armenia (a region of Turkey) in the CONIFA World Cup. The game was entertaining for many reasons: It was end to end, it had four goals (all to Cascadia), and it was soundtracked by the father of one of the Cascadia players whose general anger at decisions made during that 90 minutes would rival anything Alex Jones is capable of. It was wonderful.
I’d long yearned to attend a CONIFA game, and here I was, on a Tuesday afternoon leaving my pregnant wife at home to do the hoovering, watching one. All my Christmases and all that.
Actually, that’s not strictly true as CONIFA was only founded in 2013.
I’d long yearned to attend a competitive fixture organised by the N.F. Board, a predecessor of CONIFA since I’d worked with a chap in a small office above a Ladbrokes in North London. The days were slow but filled with joy. We’d listen to Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show and marvel, ponder the life stories of the people passing on the busy street below and spend hours eking out increasingly esoteric facts about, well, anything. But often, about football. And not a week would pass without a wistful and yearning conversation about the romance of the N.F. Board, now CONIFA.
CONIFA, if it wasn’t already clear, operates as an alternative to FIFA. They put together competitive football fixtures for regions, areas and islands not officially recognised as countries (in most cases), and therefore not recognised by the official body of the sport. All told, they give an opportunity for glory for those who don’t subscribe to accepted geography. Heroes one and all.
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CONIFA is, as these things so often seem to be, headquartered in Sweden and currently represents 54 different teams from all corners of the globe. Five of these teams also have a women’s team which is to be applauded.
At this point on Citius, Altius, Nerdius, I’d normally list the nations for you complete with icons of their flags rendered in emoji. But these nations not being the kind of nations that are recognised by anyone much, let alone the good people who make the emoji, I can’t do that. Instead, here is a snapshot of the CONIFA rankings – yes, of COURSE they have rankings – as at October 2018:
Wikipedia also gives us a great breakdown of the qualifying criteria for members that I’ve brazenly reposted here for those of you too engrossed to click the links above:
CONIFA expressly uses the term “members” rather than “countries” or “states”. A football association may be eligible to apply for membership of CONIFA if it, or the entity (ethnic and/or linguistic minority, indigenous group, cultural organization, territory) it represents, is not a member of FIFA and satisfies one or more of the following criteria:
The Football Association is a member of one of the six continental confederations of FIFA, which are: AFC, CAF, CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, OFC, UEFA
The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the International Olympic Committee
The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of one of the member federations of Association of IOC Recognised International Sports Federations (ARISF)
The entity represented by the Football Association is in possession of an ISO 3166-1 country code.
The entity represented by the Football Association is a de-facto independent territory. A territory is considered de facto independent if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) a well-defined territory; (b) a permanent population; (c) an autonomous government, and (d) diplomatic recognition by at least one of the Member States of the United Nations
The entity represented by the Football Association is included on the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories
The entity represented by the Football Association is included in the directory of countries and territories of the Traveler’s Century Club.
The entity represented by the Football Association is a member of the UNPO and/or the FUEN
The entity represented by the Football Association is a minority included in the World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, maintained and published by Minority Rights Group International
The entity represented by the Football Association is a linguistic minority, the language of which is included on the List of ISO 639-2 codes
If you’ve read this far, you will now I imagine be suitably inspired to get lost in a CONIFA shaped rabbit hole that will fill you with joy and numerous browser tabs, and I encourage you to go deep. The history of non-FIFA related football is a wonderful one only made more wonderful through self discovery.
But I will leave you with one snippet…
When I went to Bromley, just beyond the borders of South East London to attend that match at the 2018 CONIFA World Cup, the event itself was not actually hosted by England or the UK. It wasn’t even hosted in Europe. It was hosted by CONIFA member Barawa, a region on Somalia. Not that the Barawa FA are based in Africa. They are based in London, officially representing the Somali diaspora in the city. And so, it was to Bromley (and Haringey, Carshalton, Enfield and beyond) that far flung football fans made their way to watch the beautiful game.
🥉She won her first global medal in 1980, winning Bronze in the 200m at the Moscow Olympics.
(She was 20.)
🥉She won her last global medal in 2003, winning Bronze in the 60m at the World Indoor Championships in Birmingham.
(She was 43.)
👟She concluded her career anchoring Slovenia’s 4x100m to 6th in their heat (of 8) at the 2012 European Championships.
(She was 52.)
🎽She competed in seven Olympic Games (Moscow, LA, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens), more than any other track and field athlete.
🏆She’s the oldest female athletics individual medallist in the history of both the Olympics and the World Championships. She won Olympic Bronze in 2000 at the age of 40.
🇯🇲She’s been around long enough that she was the FIRST FEMALE CARIBBEAN ATHLETE TO WIN AN OLYMPIC MEDAL. She was still winning medals in 2000, an age of island dominance in the sprints. Quite remarkable.
But she didn’t just have insane longevity. She had real class too…
Ottey won medals at six of the seven Olympics she competed at. She came 4th in the 200m in Seoul, her only blot. She was a gnat’s eyelid from appearing in Beijing in 2008, but just missed out. For comparison, you have to be over 30 year olds to realistically remember seven Olympic Games. Plenty of athletes have retired around that age. 😲
She’s 4th on the all time 200m list
She’s 7th on the all time 100m list
She still holds the 200m indoor WR.
She ran under 11 seconds for 100m 67 times
She won over 20 medals at WCs and Olympics, a record shared only by Carl Lewis, Usain Bolt and Allyson Felix
She won 3o medals, in total, at Worlds, Olympics and World Indoors including 6 golds 🏅🏅🏅🏅🏅🏅
Merlene, Merlene, Merlene, Merleeeene… winning medals just because she can.
There are, depending on how you look at it, around 200 countries in the world:
193 members of the UN
206 sovereign states
206 nations with National Olympic Committees
211 members of FIFA
And it’s these nations that are used to splice up the world into the neat packets (politically questionable of course, but still) that make international competition possible.
It can’t have escaped your notice however, because it hasn’t escaped mine, that nations are not all born equal. Some are massive, some are tiny. Some have many people, some have not very many at all. Some have the perfect weather for schlepping around outside, some are devastatingly wet and windy.
It’s ultimately not fair. But then, what is?
Well, how about the overall distribution of birthdays? 🎂
Sure, there’s some shift throughout the year with September/October sitting a well positioned 9 months after Christmas and New Year frivolities but the overall the numbers are convincingly consistent (England/Wales data, US Data) for 363/366 potential birthdays at least. Only Feb 29th (obviously a special case), Christmas Day and Boxing Day exhibit notable drops from the mean.
And so what? So this…
What if FIFA, or the IOC or the IAAF or anyone else decided to run teams not based on citizenship but based on the day you were born? A truly international coming together of sisters and brothers who share birthdays rather than passports. Would it work? Who cares. Instead, let’s see which teams might perform well in a football tournament organised around this concept and spend some time elbow deep in spreadsheets. Of course, I’ve chosen football because it’s easy to get data on all professional footballer’s birthdays so we’ll leave it there for now and, as ever, I’m tired/my child needs rearing… (although, bonus info, Steve Redgrave, Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny AND Mo Farah four of the UK’s top 6 all-time Olympic medal winners were all born on March 23rd which is frankly BIZARRE and slightly unnerving and leads me to seriously consider whether lizards are in fact running the planet).
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Having crunched the data very unscientifically and while trying to also eat a croissant, I have identified birthdates that might offer the spine of a successful team from the pool of current players presented to you here in a vague kind of seeding. I could have tried to eke out a full XI of course, but I really wanted to enjoy the croissant.
Team February 5th 🎂
I find it hard to believe that it is only in researching this weird idea that I have discovered the fact that Neymar and CR7 are candle-cake twins. But there you are. And, along with a couple of other names at either ends of their careers, they could well be brought together to argue about dead-ball duties in actual Portuguese.
Team February 14th 🎂
Romantics will love the idea of seeing Kevin Keegan back on the World stage at the head of a team surely nicknamed ‘The Valentines’, not to mention Eriksen and Cavani providing some very lovely goals.
Team December 20th 🎂
A mix of youth, experience and a love of a fine pizza might just drag this team through the rounds making up for all those times they’ve been given a ‘joint’ birthday and Christmas present that’s barely the sum of its parts.
Team February 26th 🎂
Those who like players with one name and North London might be seduced by the boys running out for team 2/26. A solid line-up to fight through the rounds (which would be even more protracted than the multi-year FIFA qualification route presumably with 155 extra teams to deal with).
It’s the sort of of question that might cross your mind if you’ve just been turned down by your local NOC. Or if you’re looking for a loophole to line-up alongside elite athletes. Or if you just reckon none of the outfits on offer from the existing countries will properly suit your complexion. Well, you’re in luck. Because the short answer, is no, you don’t need to represent a country to participate in the Olympics.
The more full answer is ‘not really’, but you mostly have to represent a body of some sort whether that’s a country, a territory with its own NOC or another body created by the IOC (e.g. the Unified Team or the Refugee Olympic team). Each of which will come with their own uniform that may or may not suit your complexion.
There are of course ‘independent athletes’ that have competed when political situations beyond the control of the IOC have intervened (the break-up of Yugoslavia and the dissolution of the Netherland Antilles for example) but this is very rare and under the control of the IOC. It’s not a choice an athlete can simply make.
The long answer, with all the gory details, is below…
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When is a country not a country…
At the Olympics you don’t technically compete for your country, but as a member of the team organised by your National Olympic Committee. Now, obviously, in any useful sense, these are one and the same. The French NOC picks French athletes to represent France so Francophiles can cheer them on. But sometimes those NOCs don’t actually represent countries, per se…
Right now, as we embark on the Rio Games, there are 206 NOCs (though there were 207 teams at the Rio Games: all NOCs plus the Refugee Olympic Team)
There are only 193 member states of the UN
There are 211 member ‘countries’ of FIFA
As you can see above, the numbers show that the rules of what makes a ‘country’ according the International Olympic Committee (IOC) differ to those of the UN and FIFA (and other bodies, of course).
As has already been outlined, this is because a ‘country’ needs a National Olympic Committee (NOC) to compete at the Games.
All UN members have an NOC.
There are some NOCs that exist due to part recognition by the UN (Palestine, Kosovo, The Cook Islands and Taiwan – or Chinese Taipei as the IOC would have them).
There are also two candidate nations who could set up an NOC if they wanted, but haven’t yet done so (the Vatican City and Niue).
And there are nations that aren’t recognised by e.g. the UN or the IOC but compete at the Paralympics – part of the Olympics family (Faroe Islands and Macau).
Then there are fully fledged IOC member countries who wouldn’t be considered eligible for an NOC any more, but since they have one historically, they’re allowed in (the rule to only allow sovereign nations to apply for NOC status was passed in 1995). These are dependant territories of other nations. For example, Puerto Rico has an NOC, but is a dependant territory of the USA. There are nine of these.
Or to put it another way: If we use the UN as a definition, then all countries have NOCs, but not all NOCs represent countries. If you don’t want to use the UN definition, then it’s still true that NOCs don’t equal countries (unless your definition of a country is a territory with an NOC, obviously…)
*** Breathes… ***
To unpick this properly, let’s look at the specific case of an athlete from the Netherland Antilles, Churandy Martina, a very talented sprinter who made the final of the 100m and 200m at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. He was only matched in this feat by some Jamaican bloke called Bolt.
Churandy Martina was born in Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean and a former Dutch colony. Up until 2010, he competed as part of The Netherland Antilles, an NOC covering the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean.
All the colonies except Aruba actually.
That was part of The Netherland Antilles, but got its own NOC in 1986 (the year of the Goodwill Games, Oprah’s debut on TV and Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’).
When the Netherland Antilles NOC was dissolved in 2010 (because the Netherlands Antilles itself was dissolved…) Churandy Martina – along with other former Netherlands Antilles athletes – had a choice to make when competing at the Olympics in London:
Compete as an independent athlete
Represent the Netherlands
He chose to represent the Netherlands.
In this case, he clearly, under any reasonable definition, represented a country.
But he could have chosen to go as an independent, and thus represent just himself, as three athletes from Curaçao did indeed decide to do.
Or he could have represented Aruba. Which is a dependent country as part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And not a ‘sovereign’ state, or member of the UN. Or even the country or territory Churandy Martina was born in.
So there are your options. Under certain circumstances you can:
Represent a country of the UN, as all have NOCs
Represent a territory that might not be part of the UN, but has an NOC for historic reasons
Represent yourself under the Olympic flag as an independent athlete (but only with the express invitation to do so from the IOC)
Some other points…
There are other ways that athletes have competed at the Olympics and not represented a country.
Teams flying the Olympic flag have competed at recent Games, including the Unified Team (EUN) in the Summer and Winter Games of 1992 following the break-up of the Soviet Union and, of course, the Refugee team that competed at Rio 2016.
Independent athletes have competed during times of political change in the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and the Netherland Antilles.
This kind of political change has of course retrospectively led to athletes having represented countries/NOCs that no longer exist (e.g. East Germany, Serbia & Montenegro, Czechoslovakia and others).
One athlete from India, Shiva Keshavan, competed at the 2014 Sochi games as an independent while India were suspended from the IOC for corruption, similarly the Kuwaiti team competed as independents at Rio 2016 while Kuwait were suspended winning one gold and one bronze in the process. Note, Russian athletes – where they were able to compete – still competed for Russia at Rio 2016 (e.g. Darya Klishina the only Russian to compete in athletics)
In early Olympics, there were also ‘mixed teams’ that took part: ‘Denmark & Sweden’, ‘USA & Cuba’ and the rather odd ‘Great Britain & Bohemia’ which are obviously country like, but not technically countries. Athletes competing in these groupings won a total of 17 medals in the 1896, 1900 and 1904 Games.
At every Summer Olympic Games (well, except St Louis in 1904 – a lot of stuff was different at St Louis), there are a few – and often a lot – of events that take part away from the host city.
Usually this is for practical reasons (like sailing, you gotta have that water for that sailing or people WILL GET HURT), or to make use of better existing facilities (riding, rowing, canoeing and shooting often fall into this trap – that’s a shooting joke of course). Sometimes though, it’s simply to spread Olympic joy further around the host country. This is mostly done with football during recent Games. A total of 57 cities in all have hosted Olympic football, some many hundreds of miles from the heart of the games.
In total, having undertaken a digital wandering across the planet (well, the part of it they’re willing to host the Olympics in anyway), I’ve found 117 different towns/cities/locations that have played host to official Summer Olympic events away from the host city itself.
Of course, working out what is and isn’t in the host city isn’t an exact science (LA and Tokyo are especially fiddly blobs of never-ending cityscape), but I’ve tried to only include places that are not obviously in the host city or its outer limits. Or at least places where it would be stretching it, and a bit annoying, to tell people you lived in a host city if, for example, you actually lived in Aldershot (location of equestrian and modern pentathlon during London 1948).
In smaller countries, and for smaller cities those places creep closer than they do for the aforementioned London, LA, or Tokyo. I’ve tried to stay consistent, I may have failed dismally. But hey, I’ve tried.
As an aside, I missed out additional locations that were taken in only during meandering cycling events and the marathon unless the entire race took place away from the host city.
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The 117 locations break down as:
13 sailing locations
57 football venues
47 locations for all other events.
On the map (linked below, I will make you read to the end to find it), the sailing and football venues are separated out on different layers. Football because there are so many of them, and the approach is explicitly to move the event around. Sailing because some cities can’t really help not being by the sea. The rest, are a brilliant mix of random.
SOME EXTRA INFO
If you’re the kind of person that’s reading this website entirely of your own volition, then you’ll probably appreciate this kind of extra info. It’s the kind of detail that marks an Olympic nerd from an Olympic geek. And let’s face it, if you’re enjoying this you’re both…
There are Olympic host cities over the years that have played host to events in years other than the year in which they were the host. I haven’t detailed these on the map because that’s not what the map is for (though I have included all host cities for reference), but for completeness, the locations in this category are:
Melbourne: host to football during Sydney’s 2000 games
Amsterdam: host to sailing during the Antwerp 1920 games
And, maybe most well known… the equestrian events for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 that took place in Stockholm due to quarantine regulations in Australia.
EXTRA EXTRA INFO
St Louis is the only Summer games to take place entirely in the host city (this was helped dramatically by not having any sailing events)
Brussels, Belgium; Augsburg, Germany & Athens GA, USA played host to three separate events when posing as Olympic venues, which is frankly greedy. Several other locations hosted two events (usually canoeing and rowing, or shooting/equestrian along with Modern Pentathlon)
Tallinn in Estonia hosted the sailing for the Moscow 1980 games while Minsk (Belarus) and Kiev (Ukraine) hosted football matches. While all were part of the mighty USSR during 1980 they now exist in countries that are not Russia. This means Estonia, Belarus and Ukraine have hosted an Olympic event but the games have never actually been held in their country.
Karuizawa, Japan hosted the equestrian events during the Tokyo Olympics. While this was great for the horse lovers of the area, it was more great for the townsfolk decades later when it also hosted the curling events during the Nagano winter games. That makes Karuizawa the only city to host both a winter and summer olympic event. Cold horses and toasty curling stones are presumably on all postcards in the area. Karuizawa will sadly lose their unique record in 2022 when Beijing will host the winter games 14 years after hosting the Summer games.
Sometimes, despite their best efforts, it’s impossible to separate athletes. Not those in love, or fighting over who can get a selfie with Hero the Hedgehog, of course but those, who, having competed over many meters / moments / games / goes find themselves not gloriously fist pumping, nor sat on their haunches, hands on muzzle but instead tied in a dead heat having matched each other in every way possible (or at least every way measured, I’m not suggesting they ended up competing in the same sort and size of socks).
Wikipedia has a great list of every time this has happened at the sharp end of the Olympics, so we’ll concern ourselves with that for now. Should time/data/my infant son’s constant desire for attention allow, I’ll append a whole slew of examples from World and Area Championships large and small one day. But not today. Today we’re ripping directly from Wikipedia.
In total, 114 Summer events and 29 Winter events have produced a tie for medals. In some cases those events have offered up more than one tie (i.e. a tie for Gold and a tie for Bronze). In some cases those ties have been between MORE THAN TWO PEOPLE. These times are wonderful times (and a lot of them are, of course, actually heights and points ).
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Some STACTS (stat/facts):
The majority of the ties come from the same events in gymnastics, speed skating, athletics
There is little consistency in how ties have been dealt with over the years. The classic solution is to forgo Silver, for example, if there’s a dead heat for Gold. But in 1912, for example, they just kept handing ’em out down the line because those Swedes are just good eggs.
There are events where two Bronzes are always offered, most notably boxing where there’s no 3/4th place play off. Over the years Water Polo, Polo, Rowing, Badminton and Table Tennis have popped up with this plan as a one off, while Tennis has done it a couple of times and Judo (since ’72), Taekwondo and Wrestling (both since ’08) are doing it right now. These are not included in any of this info.
The 1932 LA Olympics were the only Summer Olympics not to see a tie. They’ve been seen in most Winter Olympics too.
One might imagine the Long Jump, for example, would yield tied marks, but none appear on the list. That’s because Long Jump is an example of an event with a method for separating equal distances, specifically by referring to the jumpers’ second best mark. As such it’s judged events, like gymnastics, or any form of racing that has no recourse to separate the competitors short of resorting to scissors, paper, stone (they may as well, it’s no worse than a penalty shoot-out).
In the case of the 1912 Pole vault competition, six medals in total were awarded: 1 Gold, 2 Silver, 3 Bronze which, by my vague and wanting calculations, makes this the most over-awarded awarded event in Olympic history with 100% more medals awarded than were expected. It’s not, of course, the event with the most medals handed out which would be the football (3x 11 medals) for current events, or Rugby Union (held in 1900, 1908, 1920 and 1924) for those no longer on the roster. Thought we’d better clear that up because, well, nerdius.
As an aside while we’re on the point of ‘extra medals’, the IOC do of course create more medals than are needed when they mint the awards for each edition (46 extra for the Sochi games for example) so these can be handed out in the event of ties, or someone losing them, or defects. Should re-allocation happen however, as in the case below, it’s not always the case that the same medal handed to the drugs cheats finds its way to the rightful owners (the linked article suggests only 3 of 24 medals awarded to compromised Russians have been handed back willingly – do anything to win, right? 💉💉💉)
There is an odd case from the 2000 Sydney Olympics to act as a coda here.
In the women’s 100m, two athletes have been awarded the Silver medal, but NOBODY the Gold. On the day itself US athlete Marion Jones crossed the finish line first propelled, as it was later determined – and she admitted – by veins pumped with drugs. Instead of second placed Katerina Thanou being upgraded to silver however she remains somewhat in limbo in that place, joined by Tanya Lawrence of Jamaica who the IOC upgraded, while the great Merlene Ottey now stands as the Bronze medallist 20 years after winning 200m Bronze in Moscow.
You know when you’re watching a long jump competition and you think to yourself ‘geez, I wonder who has jumped furthest CUMULATIVELY in this competition’? If you don’t know that feeling I recommend you move on now. This is about to go downhill fast for you.
In a standard long jump competition, as in any athletic throw or jump, the only thing that matters is the highest/furthest/bestest performance of all of your attempts. You can nail it in one and sit out the rest of the competition playing Super Mario Kart if you like, or you can keep committing yourself to improving round by round and respect the work put in by your coach and the fact your mum’s missing bingo to come and watch you perform. It’s something your sprint hurdler or marathon runner just can’t opt for. Their performances reward consistency over the course of the race, not just a magic moment. What if long jumping were the same?
What follows is a table put together through pain-staking research (well, slightly-uncomfortable research, I hit the big competitions and some other stuff that stood out, not everything. I’m committed, but not insane). The table outlines performances by the world’s leading long jumpers ranked as if all six of their series jumps counted to their final mark.
When you look at it in detail you’ll notice three things:
It’s fairly rare for a jumper to average 8m+ during a single event (essentially because one foul is going to scupper that chance)
Carl Lewis was even more ridiculous than you already thought he was
At the 2017 World Championships two men jumped an 8+ average for the first time (in my data set), with Jarrion Lawson becoming the first man to clear 50m cumulative at any championships. He only left with silver.
There is very little real value to this information
Walnut, CA 1987
2006 World Indoors
2004 World Indoors
1987 World Indoors
Godfrey Khotso Mokoena
1995 World Indoors
Carl Lewis takes the top three and bottom three places in this table.
The top three are for epic performances that saw him clear 50m cumulative for his series of jumps. The only person (I can find at least, and I’m the only person whose likely looked) to have ever done this.
The bottom three places I’ve included simply to show how incredible Lewis was as a long jumper. These performances don’t hit the magic 8m average that everyone else was required to hit for inclusion in this table, but then Carl Lewis doesn’t fit neatly into any set of rules.
Those three bottom series aside from one, lonely foul, were impeccable. And these competitions were big ones: one Olympics, two World Championships, including the one where all this happened…
In Tokyo, in 1991, Carl Lewis would only win silver that day. But his jumping, with four marks over 8.80m is unrivalled. His shortest leap of 8.68 in Tokyo would have won EVERY SINGLE OTHER WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP BAR ONE (1995, when Ivan Pedroso jumped 2cm further). It would have won at every Olympic Games bar two: Beamon’s astonishing leap in 1968, and Lewis’ own winning jump in Seoul in 1988.
Those five jumps in 1991, when added together, fall a mere 65cm short of the entire six jump series of Ignisious Gaisah at the 2003 World Championships that averaged 8.00m dead. That’s essenitally the depth of the plasticine on the board (it’s not, even remotely, but you’ll forgive the hyperbole here I’m sure).
One final point on the lord of leaping: the top two lines in the table, where Lewis jumps on average 8.60m in Sestriere and 8.57 in California happen seven years apart. That’s not just consistency, that’s ridiculous.
Of course, you might argue that it isn’t entirely relevant to pore over the relatively few instances of consistently lengthy long jumping in competition when it isn’t what athletes are marked on (my wife certainly does, especially when there’s washing up to do).
But it must surely be true that a long jumper’s aim every time they take to the runway is to i) run down it, really fast and to ii) throw themselves, legally, really far into the sandpit.
If you do that with vigour six times, then you’re more likely to win than if you only manage it once.
If you can therefore perfect your run up and technique to ensure you hit the board every time and can push your distances without falling apart?
Well, then you’re Carl Lewis.
I reach out from time to time to a few people mentioned in these articles. Which is when this happened…
There’s something beautiful about a tournament bracket. And if you disagree BOY are you on the wrong website.
The simple, ordered march of many down to one, the field halving in size each time. If it’s seeded the slow incline of the favourites cruising up the edges, squeezing everybody else out. If it isn’t, the madness of seeing competitors who shouldn’t be battling it out this earlier crunching into each other and letting lesser opposition sneak underneath. And, for me at least, the very easy opportunity to work out who in each particular tournament was the biggest loser.
* * * * *
If in the first round of a tournament you play the eventual winner then you can sorta, kinda claim that you *MIGHT* have been the second best player in the tournament. After all, you just happened to meet the best player in round one. Who knows what would have happened if you’d had a bit of a run at it and avoided them altogether, or at least until the final. But you didn’t, you got lumped with them from the off. And so now you’re here playing Fortnite and gorging on olives (it’s how I imagine off duty tennis stars).
The Ultimate Loser is the opposite. The person with the least claim to have been done over because the person they lost to in the first round went on to lose in the second round to someone who lost in the third and so on right up through the defeated finalist. What makes tournament brackets so beautiful is they’re easy to work back to this point. Easy to work back to one solitary hero who started a chain of destruction that is as impressive as anything the champion can offer up on their run to victory.
Let’s celebrate two of those heroes from Wimbledon 2018, for example.
In the men’s singles Kevin Anderson lost to Novak Djokovic in the final. He had previously beaten John Isner, who had beaten Milos Raonic in the QF. His previous victim was Mackenzie McDonald who had beaten Guido Pella in R3 after the Argentine has despatched with Marin Cilic (the third seed!) in R2. The unlucky plucky loser to Cilic in round one? Yoshihito Nishioka, the 22nd year old Japanese world no. 259. Take your loser’s crown and wear it with pride.
In the women’s singles Serena Williams was the beaten finalist. She had knocked out Julia Gorges in the semis who had ended the dreams of Kiki Bertens in the quarters. That followed Bertens’ win over Ka Polskova who had in turn beaten Mihaela Buzarnescu in R3. In the second round local lass Katie Swan failed to get past Buzarnescu having beaten… drum roll please… Aryna Sabalenka in the first round. Please take a moment to applaud the 2o year old Belorussian and world no 32.
Of course, *technically* other people didn’t even make the main draw dropping out in qualifying. But there’s no glory in losing before the TV cameras are up and running.
And of course you can do this for any tournament at all. You can go back through the years at Wimbledon (in 2017 Zheng Saisai took the crown in the women’s singles, in 2016 the men’s singles Ultimate Loser was Santiago Giraldo, a worthy foil to home-turf winner Andy Murray), you can apply it to any other sport you choose…
2018 World Snooker Championship Ultimate Loser: Luca Brecel 🏅
When I was about 11 years old I was in a geography class at school and, since it was the end of term, the teacher had decided we’d have a quiz. This quiz had two main parts.
The first, was to identify the locations of various cities. This could have been tough for a poorly-travelled child with a little over a decade on earth, but it was eased significantly by: a) a burgeoning knowledge of European football, b) a delight in being able to name all the Olympic host cities and c) a huge globe at my grandparents’ house (that housed booze, obviously).
The second part was built around identifying countries by their flags.To nail this one, Olympiphilia was more than enough.
It’s struck me ever since that a nerdy obsession with sport has various fringe benefits in terms of knowledge gained. A good handling of what kinds of names people have in different parts of the world for example, something that helps you take a decent stab a suggesting where an unknown Nobel laureate might have been born when asked to do so in a particularly fiendish pub quiz. And it gives you a decent grasp of the changing geo-political landscape too (”Well, the EUN team of former soviet nations competed at the 1992 games before any of the countries had a chance to set up an IOC, so I guess the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991?”). Again, useful in a fiendish pub quiz. Or to impress an immigration official on a date say.
And, of course, a deeply held love for global sport of any kind helps you get to grips with ALL OF THE FLAGS.
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One of the things that tickles me when browsing historical line-ups Olympic finals (or other international sporting jamboree) is when the colours of the flags of the represented nations are matching. The symmetry of the same nation winning gold, silver and bronze for example. Or a whole load of crosses. Or stripes. Or, when everything is basically the same set of colours throughout.
I love it.
And I bet you do a little bit too (or you wouldn’t be reading articles explicitly about the nerdy details of the Olympic games, you’d be out riding a motorbike or shopping for trainers or whatever else it is normal people do with their time).
So here’s a question to ponder:
Has a final (with 8 or so athletes, I’m not researching every heat and qualifying round, I’m not mental) ever consisted of athletes representing countries whose flag offers an *entirely matching* colour scheme?
Let’s find out.
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First up, let’s define what I mean by this just so we’re all clear. I’m talking about flags who share the exact same colours.
The red, white and blue of the UK, the USA and France for example. Or Liberia, though it’s less likely.
So it looks something like this:
🇬🇧 🇺🇸 🇫🇷 🇱🇷
Or, more simply, the red and white of Poland, Denmark, Switzerland and Canada.
Which would be just lovely:
Got it? Good.
In the early days of ye olde modern Olympics, colour-schematic finals happened a lot. Not least because those three titans of the USA, UK and France – as noted above – share the same three colours on their flag and, at plenty of events at early games not many others were even trying to compete, let alone win.
So we’ll scoot on by those examples (thank you very much St Louis 1904) and see if we can uncover anything with a bit more ‘same-coloured-spice’ in the post-war era…
There’s a lot of ‘nearly made its’ (the kind of line-ups that originally piqued my interest). But the Germans 🇩🇪 – more often that not – and a clutch of successful Chinese 🇨🇳, Soviet era ☭, Brazilian 🇧🇷 and Italian 🇮🇹 athletes (or less often Spaniards 🇪🇸, Hungarians 🇭🇺, Swedes 🇸🇪 or South Africans 🇿🇦 / ‘the racist flag‘) pop up to ruin the red, white and blue fun (and yes, this IS fun). Cuba 🇨🇺, Norway 🇳🇴, Panama 🇵🇦 and Czechoslovakia 🇨🇿 (now the Czech republic) offer some nice alternatives to the ‘big three’, as well as the Dutch 🇳🇱, Australians 🇦🇺 and the New Zealand 🇳🇿 athletes.
And when we swill that altogether in a big pot of result-trawling we find success! Thank god. I’ve taken time out from spending time with my son to write this.
So, by my reckoning there are three finals that have featured ‘colour schemed finals’ since the war, though two of them (both in 1948) are a bit of a fiddle. They are:
The fiddles come as the nations involved in the 1948 events were: Netherlands, UK, Australia, USA and Panama, whose flags all bore (and still do) red, white and blue. They also included Canada and Jamaica whose flags do not (though Canada’s red and white is still pleasing to the colour scheme). In 1948 both nations flags were yet to emerge into their independent designs, with both echoing Australia’s current flag as a clear subset of the Union Jack.
1956 however, and that men’s 100m backstroke, is the duck’s pyjamas, as it were:
‘48 men’s long jump (top 9, though all 11 athletes if you discount Argentina’s shining sun which you will refuse to do if you’re a better and less tired nerd than I)
And let’s finish on some special mentions:
The 2000 women’s BMX competition had 16 competitors, 12 of which flew red, white and/or blue (with China, mostly red, Argentina, mostly blue and Hungary,… ugh).
The 2008 men’s Keirin had only one competitor from the semi final stage that didn’t fly red, white and/or blue (a German, naturally) … well, if you can forgive the sun on the Malaysia flag. You can’t can you? Fine.
Of 53 medals awarded during the 2008 games in Beijing to male swimmers, a stunning 46 were won by nations flying red, white and/or blue (China, Hungary, Brazil and Germany scooped up 7 medals in the wake of Michael Phelps and his colour-schemed brethren)
All medals won in the women’s pole vault (which was first introduced at the Sydney games in 2000) have led to the flying of only red, white and blue on the podium… 🇺🇸 🇦🇺 🇮🇸 🇷🇺 🇵🇱 🇨🇺 🇬🇷 🇳🇿
Can you believe we got there? No, neither can I. But we did. And for that, we should all be glad.
Oh, and while this is of course all well and good for entertainment purposes (and yes, this IS entertaining), it’s really the brilliance of all colours at the Olympic games – well reflected in the flags from across the world – that make it the event it is.
Now, since that’s sorted, I wonder if the finalists in any event have ever finished in alphabetical order? Or age order? Or height order?
Please feel free to find out…
I looked at all Summer Olympic sports where a final event takes place between multiple competitors (i.e. shooting, weightlifting, cycling, rowing etc) but not the team sports, or any competition based on matches (tennis, badminton etc). I didn’t trawl through the Winter Olympics because it was quite sunny outside and it felt wrong.
On Sunday 15th Julythe 2018 World Cup Final kicked off after a month of sweaty Russian VAR-checked action. France won it beating a resurgent Croatia 4-2 after some highly questionable refereeing decisions.
But you know that.
The real question (i.e. the question we’re going to waste our time on now) is:
“Was it what we expected?”
And the answer, should you be too lazy / busy / entirely disinterested to read further is: Mostly.
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Russia 2018. The FIFA World Cup. 32 teams supplement their training camps with borscht, visits to towering Soviet era monuments and general confusion because “…isn’t Russia meant to be cold? What about those hats?! I bought three!!!”. Fans from 32 nations debate with each other and the rest of the world about how well they will do, have done, could do next time and should be doing year-in-year-out. The media feed on the fatty morsels of ‘expectation’ served with a crusty side of pessimism (or a lovely optimism salad, depending on their agenda and appetite for extended metaphors).
As results billow in the post-mortems are quite clear on whether expectations have been missed, met or exceeded…
Dear fans, we feel just as disappointed as you. The World Cup only comes around every four years and we expected so much more from us. We’re sorry for not playing like world champions, and as painful as it is, we deserve to be out…
Germany, to get slightly ahead of ourselves, spectacularly missed expectations.
But you don’t need two separate tables of data to tell you that. Though we’ll get to that glory soon…
Expectation is riddled with context.
There is, for example, almost no expectation that I will be the President of Tuvalu in the year 2050. This is for many reasons, not least because Tuvalu does not make room for the role of President. However, if we were to find ourselves in 2050, the office of President having now been passed into local law, its election process based on a knock-out Super Mario Kart competition that only I and 73 other people have entered all of whom are known to be rubbish on Rainbow Road… then the expectations are very different (because I OWN Rainbow Road).
Before the World Cup, the expectation that Germany would go out in the Group Stage was lower than an ‘legend level’ limbo bar (a stick on the ground). After losing to Mexico in the opening game there was negligible expectation, but possibility. About 75 minutes into the final round of games with Sweden leading Mexico 3-0, South Korea giving nothing away, a complete lack of energy from the Germans and 15-20 minutes left on the clock… then the expectation became tangible.
Of course it doesn’t always cook so slowly. Expectations for ‘Sbornaya’ (the hosts) rocketed after they beat Saudi Arabia 5-0 in the opening game. And rightly so. Having looked likely to fumble themselves to a devastating early exit during their last competitive outing at the Confederations Cup, they proved that home advantage means something when it matters. And those expectations, of course, were well surpassed…
The expectation pre-World Cup was that Brazil would lift the trophy.
I say this not as my opinion, or as a general feeling from the masses. I say this with certainty. This is because I’m simply stating what the market believed. The market, in this case, being sports betting.
What’s useful about the odds offered by bookmakers on sporting events is that they essentially measure the expectation of what will happen in a given match and give it a quantifiable ‘score’. If something is very likely to happen, then it will have short odds meaning that if you bet money on it, you won’t win very much back. If it’s very unlikely to happen (either statistically, such as there being 50 corners in one football match, or based on cold hard information, such as Patrick Thistle making the Champions League final before the end of the decade), then it will have long odds.
Bookies become very rich because they put a lot of time and effort into determining the odds they offer to ensure that, over the long term, they are right and ‘things-that-aren’t-meant-to-happen’ don’t happen. Because when they do it costs them LOTS OF CASH. And it’s this reliance on data plus the crucial driver of money-at-stake that make the odds for a sporting event very reliable as an indicator of what’s meant to happen. AKA, what the real expectations are for the outcome. Something the partisan press, your mate Barry or ‘a feeling you had in the shower’ are less able to do.
On June 18th, the odds on which country would win the 2018 World Cup looked liked this:
But that was the 18th June. And the world was a very different place when, on 15th July nearly a month later, 11 Frenchman took to the field in Moscow to take on Croatia. On that day the odds broke down like this:
For the rest of this article, despite what I’ve done above, I’m going to use decimal odds (HK style, like the best sweet and sour dishes) simply because it makes it very easy to compare lots of numbers at a glance, not least if you’re not used to looking at these things. Fractional odds, as used above – 4/1 for example, ‘four to one’ – are the usual go to which is why they’re quoted above, but as things get tighter, they become a bit (or a lot) trickier to follow.
When it comes to decimal odds (and to clarify, and for the purist, while we’re using Honk Kong odds, there are slight variations used in the UK, Europe, US and beyond), then the closer to 0 the odds are (the lowest they can be, 0 would literally just get you your money back) the more likely it is believed that result will happen. So 0.5 is expected to happen more than 1.5. Got it? Good.
I’ve used Odd Portal’s averaged odds for the World Cup to ‘write’ this article. This is a store of the match odds (i.e. for the result after 90 minutes) in the minutes before each game kicked off averaged from a number of bookmakers based around the world.
According to their data the most sure-fire of results came in at 0.21, for 🇪🇸Spain to beat 🇮🇷Iran and 🇧🇷Brazil to beat 🇨🇷Costa Rica. Both did. If you’d put £10 on those games at those odds you’d have found yourself with the princely sum of… £12.10 at the final whistle. A profit of £2.10. Get in the Um Bongos.
Once the odds get out to around 3.0 – and admittedly I’m going to get a bit unscientific here – you’re reaching ‘less likely’ territory. And by the time you hit 6.0 you’re well into ‘unlikely’ territory. But of course it happens.
The longest odds to win in Russia 2018 were the 18.48 odds for 🇰🇷South Korea to beat 🇩🇪Germany in the last round of group games. If you’d foreseen that (or, more likely, your finger had slipped when placing the bet), then you’d have collected £184.80 profit from your £10. Comfortably enough for a flight to Frankfurt to console fans of Die Mannschaft.
To get the most from this article (and I’ll admit, like much Nerdius content, it’s a tough squeeze) that’s all you need to know. That and that life IS NOT too short to engage with this stuff.
Now let’s get back to context. And, because they had nothing to do with the World Cup and won’t sully our data, let’s talk about 🏴Scotland. Because a) they never do so this won’t really age and b) they’re the team I was born to lament.
There are, I think, four different contexts when discussing the expectations of a football (or I guess any) team:
HISTORICAL EXPECTATION: What normally happens?
We lose to the minnows and put up a fight against decent teams.
GENERAL EXPECTATION: Where should we be?
In the World Cup final! We have more people than Croatia or Uruguay and the ability to invest in facilities. Plus we managed to produce Kenny Dalglish, Denis Law and many others, so we can again. We just need to get our boys playing competitively abroad and sort out the domestic structure and it will come.
ADVANCE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen next week, next month?
We’ll lose and it will be gutting.
IMMEDIATE EXPECTATION: What’s likely to happen later today?
We’ll lose but will still go to the bar.
The self-deprecating Scotland fan chat aside, these four contexts often get muddled when people talk about expectations. Indeed, I’d contend that if we want to have a useful conversation about whether teams have failed to meet or surpassed the expectations set for them, then the only thing that really matters is the ‘immediate’ context.
You can, to use a footballing cliche, only play one game at a time. And you can only beat who’s in front of you. Not only that, but expectations live in the very real here and now, not in some fantasy parallel universe where there’s been more investment in the game, where a world class player turns out to have a Scottish grannie and where Scottish clubs were subsumed into the English system a la Swansea and Cardiff. This is true for the fans of course, but even more so for the players and their support staff who work hard and don’t want to come up short.
Historically, the Netherlands have an excellent team. Best team never to win the World Cup basically. But their current team didn’t even qualify. It’s pointless to base expectations on what Cruyff et al did, just as it is to pine for the team who made the final 8 years ago and finished third at the last outing. They’re old. They’re gone. The new lads may as well be wearing clogs.
In terms of the General expectation based on, say, ‘available players’, the top 10 nations by raw numbers are: China, USA, Germany, India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia. This is from FIFA’s ‘Big Count’ a survey of all 207 member nations on the numbers involved in the game. Sure, economics come into it too, but 🇧🇩Bangladesh – who have the 9th biggest football playing population in the world – are currently ranked 194 in the world by FIFA, while 🇨🇲Cameroon (49), 🇨🇮Côte d’Ivoire (68) and 🇸🇳Senegal (27) all have a lower GDP per capita. Just some top line stats of course, but its enough to tell you they tell you nothing.
Advance calls on what might happen are useful and based on the current ‘real’ scheme of things, but things can change quickly: Injuries, a great or terrible performance in the lead-up, a sacked manager, an owl roosting in the ground. It all matters.
It’s therefore only the ‘Immediate’ context, the judgement call made in the final moments before the game with all the info at our disposal that can be said to really represent whether we should be overjoyed, or over-angry at the end result. Of course injuries or strange refereeing decisions happen mid-game to change the course of history too, and so expectation can change mid-game, but we’ve got to draw a line somewhere. Or at least, I’m going to.
And so, after all that, let’s get to the data.
Below is a table with all of the results from the 2018 World (that’s 64 games) and the odds from just before kick-off for a win for either team, or a draw. One caveat, as mentioned above the odds are for the 90 minute result. In the knock-out rounds I have taken any game that went to penalties to be a draw. If a game was won in extra time then I’ve counted it as a win (though this is only relevant for one game).
Note: Actual result highlighted by cell colour. ‘Favourite’ result (if not actual) shown by orange text. See the Expectation Key for a traffic light style totally made up system of my devising for how ‘likely’ each result was.
Some things of note:
39 games met expectations, 25 games did not
Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations 14 still had results that were pretty likely (i.e. it was seen as a close contest)
Of the 25 games that did not meet expectations, 6 could be termed disasters / heroic (more accurately were over 4.0 odds wise)
🇦🇷Argentina’s draw with 🇮🇸Iceland
🇲🇽Mexico beating 🇩🇪Germany
🇯🇵Japan beating 🇨🇴Colombia
🇸🇦Saudi Arabia beating 🇪🇬Egypt
🇪🇸Spain’s draw with 🇲🇦Morocco
🇰🇷South Korea beating 🇩🇪Germany
From expectations of TOTAL 1.14 Germany games went 25.12 (and was 28.32 until Tony Kroos score his last minute free kick against Sweden). YIKES
Almost all upsets occurred in the Group stages. While 8x games were ‘unexpected’ results out of the 16 knock out games, only one – 🇪🇸Spain v 🇷🇺Russia – was a clear upset (3.16 for the draw prior to Spain being eliminated on penalties)
You may also note that England were actually favourites to beat Belgium in the group game, which was the only anomaly I found when cleaning through the data. However Belgium were more open about fielding a weakened team and England had been looking nifty. Further research confirms this was the expectation of the masses.
Of course, the real question we want to uncover is which teams at the World Cup over performed and which under performed. And for that, this table is far more useful…
Note: This is a simple traffic light system. Red = didn’t meet expectations, yellow = did, green = exceeded expectations (all based on the data from the previous table, of course). In the first column I’ve given the teams an overall ‘colour’ rating based on their game-by-game results. In the second column is the ‘Advance’ expectation (unscientific, my view based on general chatter about each team). Under EQ I’ve made up a fancy ‘expectation quotient’ that means NOTHING but looks confusing and thus swanky (it’s just exceeded:met:missed). In the final columns I’ve marked ticks for if teams exceeded or failed to meet expectations on at least one occasion. It’s simpler than I’ve made it sound.
Some more things of note:
🇪🇸Spain failed the most. But only because they managed to fail twice and still make the KO round, so they could fail again
🇪🇸Spain’s 4x failures comes in just ahead of 4th placed 🏴England, who failed 3x times (and never exceeded expectations game-by-game)
It’s therefore, as in England’s case, very possible to far exceed advance expectations while actually failing to meet expectations game-by-game.
Three teams did just as expected and went out in the Group Stage (🇵🇦Panama, 🇹🇳Tunisia, 🇵🇪Peru)
🇰🇷South Korea, 🇨🇷Costa Rica, 🇦🇺Australia, 🇮🇷Iran and 🇸🇦Saudi Arabia over performed, but still went out in the Group Stage
14x teams met or exceeded expectations in every match (which means 18 teams dropped the ball at least once)
Of the finalists, 🇫🇷France ‘met expectations’ throughout (except a dodgy draw with 🇩🇰Denmark), while 🇭🇷Croatia were a right mixed bag
As such, any of the top handful of teams (🇫🇷France, 🇧🇷Brazil, 🇪🇸Spain, 🇩🇪Germany) could only ever really meet expectations, or flop
🏴England, 🇭🇷 Croatia and a handful of others show that you can underperform on a given day but still go far as long as you can take a decent penalty (or save them), or at least slip up at the ‘right time’.
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So them’s the numbers. Have a poke around, berate my colour coding, marvel at 🇲🇦Morocco, 🇮🇸Iceland and 🇸🇳Senegal who managed to miss, meet and exceed expectations in their triplets of games – the holy trinity (for literally this article and no where else).
But what all this faffing about with odds really tells us is that while the media’s colouring of expectations aren’t quite accurate, the bare game-by-game results data is only useful in making the kind of technical-but-tedious point that won’t get you invited to many parties (obviously examining the data and finding weird coincidences (like the fact 🇧🇷Brazil’s results when stated as ‘.’ for didn’t meet and ‘-‘ for met – no need for ‘*’ for exceeded – paints an appropriately sad face: .—.) is totally normal).
Expectations in football are bigger than that.
🏴England (to use an example close to my house) were seen to have had a brilliant World Cup. Which is on balance fair. But when you step back and look at it they actually failed to meet expectations in three matches our of seven, and one of those was in the semi-final. So they really *should* have done better. They really *should* have been in the final (where it would have been expected to all go a bit ‘Taillebourg‘).
But then they won a penalty shoot-out.
And that was HUGE for England and their fans.
And it made a Radio 1 DJ point this out.
Which is wonderful.
This is BRILLIANT. Whatever happens later, the legacy this story and this team will leave in dealing with stress, anxiety and overcoming demons is extraordinary. It’s mental health awareness in action and it’s the national talking point and that’s amazinghttps://t.co/b6LuUm67DV
Football is the most popular sport in the world precisely because it doesn’t always follow expectations. Whether it’s Denmark ’92, Leicester 2016 or The Miracle of Istanbul; the ‘Hand of God’ (or his second), the Panenka or the Milla wiggle. It’s the moments beyond the results that defy expectation but create their own world where the prize for your commitment is something wonderful you’d never quite see coming.
This World Cup had Ronaldo’s free kick against Spain and Neuer slipping against South Korea. It had ridiculous strikes from right backs, Panama’s first ever World Cup goal and it had the first teenager to score in a final since some lad called Edson Arantes do Nascimento. But it also had Senegal and Japan fans cleaning up the stadium. And it had this Brazilian fan in tears of joy along with the rest of us…
When you take them together it’s all of these intricate, all-encompassing narratives swarming together that fulfil the expectations of fans around the world. Sure, we never bring ourselves to expect these things from great sport – after all it’s the knowledge that this could be another drab 0-0 that makes the drama possible – but it’s the expectation they can happen that lives in every kick and every chant and every stupid VAR-bothering replay on a pitch-side TV that looks like it should be showing a rotating graphic of what’s on the stadium carvery and an exhortation to ‘book early for Christmas’.
Because while it’s easy to kill an afternoon pondering the black and white reality of ‘success’ with stats and facts and data (and Lord is it easy to complain and goad as required), it’s the expectation that there’s so much more to sport that keeps us coming back.